Those of you who have never stepped a foot in a casino probably associate the word “pontoon” with a flat-bottomed barge. The word invokes very different associations when one is a gambler, however. In the context of gambling, pontoon is a card game that bears a number of similarities with blackjack.
Less experienced casino players often get confused because there are actually two different variations of pontoon. One is offered across Australia, Singapore, and Malaysia and bears closer similarities to a blackjack variation called Spanish 21.
The other version of pontoon holds a closer semblance to the traditional game of blackjack. It is commonly referred to as British pontoon because of its broader availability in the United Kingdom.
Pontoon is largely considered a variation of blackjack but some gambling experts prefer to discuss it separately because the game comes with a number of rule changes. Pontoon is also widely available across multiple online casinos, with some of the most popular online variations being created by Betsoft, RealTime Gaming, Microgaming, and Playtech. So let’s take a closer look at this fascinating game’s rules and its variations.
The Rules of Pontoon
The basic premise of pontoon is the same as that of blackjack. You need to beat the dealer with a hand whose total is as closer to 21 as possible but without going over. The game starts with the players receiving two cards face up. Both cards of the dealer are dealt face-down so that they are not immediately visible to the players.
The values of the cards coincide with those in the standard game of blackjack. The ace can be counted as either 1 or 11. The 10 and the face cards are assigned a value of 10 whereas all other cards (2 through 9) are assigned their pip value.
After the cards have been dealt, the players have a choice from several playing decisions which largely coincide with those in blackjack. The players can choose to stand on any total as long as it is equal to or greater than 15. If the player forms a five-card hand, they automatically stand.
Other than that, the player is allowed to hit at any point including after a double down. This is one of the main rule differences between traditional blackjack and pontoon – in blackjack, players are not permitted to take any hits after doubling down.
This is not the case in pontoon where you can take more cards following the double. Suppose, for example, you have been dealt a starting hand of A-3 for a soft total of 14. You double down and draw a deuce for soft 16. You may choose to hit the hand again and even draw another card if you do not bust.
Pontoon Additional TipsAs a matter of fact, the player is required to automatically hit doubled hands if their total is below 15 because the rules of the game prohibit you from standing on totals under 15. Here is another example to demonstrate this peculiarity of pontoon’s rules. You are dealt a two-card hand that totals 10, double down on this, and pull a 2 for a total of 12. The dealer will not pause and wait for you to signal a hit. They will automatically draw another card on your 12, instead. If the dealer pulls another deuce, they will hit your hand again because its total would still be under 15.
Another key difference is that pontoon players can double once per hand on any total regardless of the number of cards. As a general rule, blackjack players can double down only on starting totals consisting of no more than two cards.
When the player’s starting hand consists of two cards of equal rank, they are allowed to split them and form two hands after posting an additional wager to cover the second hand. Doubling after splitting is also permitted. Most online variations of pontoon allow players to resplit to up to three hands, with the exception of Betsoft’s version where resplitting is altogether not an option.
After all players at the pontoon table have finished playing their hands, it is the dealer’s turn to act on their hand. The dealer turns over their two hole cards and continues to act depending on the fixed rules of the house. In most variations of pontoon, these fixed rules require the dealer to draw to 16 and hit soft totals of 17. The dealer is also required to automatically stand on any five-card hand regardless of its total.
One major difference between pontoon and most blackjack variations is that pontoon dealers take all ties. The player loses if their hand total exceeds 21 or when the dealer outdraws them forming a hand with a higher total.
The Ranking of Hands and Payouts in Pontoon
There are several important hands in pontoon that earn you increased payouts, starting with the pontoon itself. This is pretty much the equivalent of blackjacks in the traditional version of the game. The pontoon is a natural hand that consists of two cards – an ace and a ten-value card (10, Jack, Queen or King).
This is exactly like a blackjack, the only difference is in the payout. Unlike blackjacks that pay 3 to 2, pontoons return payouts of 2 to 1. This increased payout is granted even after splitting. For instance, if you split a pair consisting of Aces and pull a ten-value card on one or both aces, you automatically win the 2-to-1 payout whereas in blackjack, a two-card hand that adds up to 21 only pays even money if made after a split. If both the dealer and the player obtain pontoons, the player automatically loses because, as we mentioned, the dealer takes all ties here.
The second-best hand to get is the so-called five-card Charlie, also known as a five-card trick in pontoon. As the name indicates, this hand consists of five cards but their total should not exceed 21. The exact total of the hand is irrelevant as long as it does not bust. A five-card Charlie also offers a payout of 2 to 1 and can be beaten only by a dealer who has also obtained a five-card hand without exceeding 21.
If you form a three-card hand with a total of 19 but the dealer’s hand contains five cards for a total of 17, the dealer automatically wins despite the fact you have a higher total than theirs. And vice versa, if the dealer has a three-card total of 20 but you have a five-card Charlie that totals 17, you win, again at casino odds of 2 to 1. Other non-busted winning hands of the player return even-money payouts.
The Strategy for Pontoon
Pontoon may seem like a bad game at first because the dealer takes all ties. However, various compensatory rules are in place so the game generally offers a lower house edge than some blackjack variations. This low edge can be further reduced by incorporating the correct pontoon strategy.
The rules of the game lead to higher variance which is something you should keep in mind. If you have a limited bankroll at your disposal, you should choose traditional blackjack over pontoon. Otherwise, pontoon’s higher variance may easily wipe you out.
Most of your advantage in this game results from the liberal rules on doubling down along with the increased payouts for pontoons and five-card Charlies. The basic strategy for pontoon is vastly different from the one for traditional blackjack for the simple reason there are no dealer upcards. The dealer receives both of their cards face-down. Thus, the strategy here is based solely on the number of cards your hand consists of.
Pontoon Strategy Additional TipsThe basic strategy for pontoon recommends doubling on all soft totals that consist of four cards. The logic behind these plays is that it is impossible to bust with a soft hand; meanwhile, if you double down on a four-card soft hand, you are guaranteed to make a five-card Charlie. Thus, if the dealer does not have a five-card Charlie as well, you automatically win four times your initial bet because you have doubled down and five-card Charlies pay at a rate of 2 to 1.
Another fine point of the basic strategy for this game is doubling on a soft 19 that consists of three cards. If you happen to pull an Ace or a 2, you end up with soft totals of either 20 or 21. A basic strategy blackjack player will never hit these soft totals. Pontoon strategy, however, recommends you to do just that. Again, it is impossible to bust by drawing one more card so you get to make a five-card Charlie by hitting the soft 20 or the soft 21.
The player is also recommended to stand on all hard totals of 18 regardless of the number of cards. You should hit four-card hard 17 and double down on four-card hands of hard 16. These plays may be shocking to people who are accustomed to playing standard blackjack but are still optimal for the game of pontoon.
The Differences in Australian Pontoon
The pontoon variation played in Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia bears some semblance to the previously discussed version of the game but there are several key differences and variations in the rules we would like to tackle in brief in this section. For more detailed information, feel free to check our article on Spanish 21 since Australian pontoon is quite similar to this game.
Australian pontoon typically uses four to eight customized decks of cards. We are saying “customized” because the 10s of each suit are removed so that each deck contains only 48 cards instead of the usual 52. The removal of the 10s is considered detrimental for the player and favorable for the casino.
The dealers are required to hit soft totals of 17 and do not receive a hole card. Instead, they draw a second card after all players have finished with their hands. There may be variations in the other rules depending on which casino you play at. The card values and the hand totaling coincide with those in standard blackjack.
Australian Pontoon Additional TipsThese discrepancies commonly concern the number of splits the player is allowed but there may be differences in the doubling down rules as well. In some variants, the player is allowed to double only on 9, 10, and 11 only while in others, doubling is allowed on any two-card total.
Some versions played across Australia give the player the option of a later surrender. It is usually possible to surrender after you have doubled down, a rule called the “double down rescue”. In essence, this is the same as the early surrender because the “rescue” takes place immediately and you forfeit a sum that is equal to your initial wager.
Similarly to the standard version of pontoon, the Australian variant offers increased payouts for certain “special” hands that consist of five, six or seven cards with a total of 21. There are also bonus payouts for three suited 7 when the dealer’s card is also a 7.
In most variants of Australian pontoon, the dealer does not take a hole card but this rule actually favors the players. They get to draw to 21 and still beat the dealer’s natural, something which is impossible in the game of blackjack.
There are rule discrepancies pertaining to the situations where players double down or split pairs and the dealer obtains a blackjack afterward. Some casinos abide by the OBO (original bets only) rule which states that players who have doubled or split lose only their initial wagers when the dealer obtains a blackjack.
Both versions of pontoon are equally shocking to players who have grown accustomed to traditional blackjack. Regardless, pontoon has its positives and can be a very fun and profitable game to play provided you have taken the time to learn the correct basic strategy.